Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice in the American canon—a writer whose works are hard to categorize, often straddling the space between literature and science fiction, and filled with cutting satire and dark humor. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's reputation and impact on American writing and reading will continue to grow steadily and increase in relevance as new insights are made.
Vonnegut was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. In the Second World War, he became a German prisoner of war and was present during the bombing of Dresden. This experience provided inspiration for his most successful and influential novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut—admired as much for his views and his "Vonnegutisms" as for his publications—wrote extensively in many forms, including novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, and correspondence, some of which was published posthumously.
A lifelong friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s, Dan Wakefield both edited and wrote the Introduction to the bestselling collection of Vonnegut's personal correspondence, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. In addition, Wakefield is the author of the memoir New York in the Fifties, which was made into a documentary film, as well as Returning: A Spiritual Journey. He created the NBC prime time series "James at Fifteen" and wrote the script for the movie based on his novel Going All The Way, starring Ben Affleck.
Rudy Waltz (aka "Deadeye Dick") is the lead in this latter day Vonnegut novel. Waltz, our protagonist, moves through the book trying to make sense of a life that is rife with disaster; there is a double murder, a fatal dose of radioactivity, a decapitation, the total annihilation of a city by nuclear holocaust and, believe it or not, more. Waltz, a diarist, becomes symbolic of a person living a fraught post-technological life in which frailty is as likely to be a person’s undoing as any bomb.
Waltz finally reaches the point of resignation; a realization and understanding that there are things that are just beyond our control and understanding that make all human motive, ambition, and circumstance absolutely irrelevant. Waltz’s search for meaning leads him ultimately to a kind of resignation which ought not be confused with understanding of any kind, for it is not. It is simple resignation.
It is this theme of Vonnegut’s--the impossibility of trying to live meaningfully in a meaningless world--that is ultimately central to this novel. Rudy Waltz (like some of Vonnegut’s other protagonists, Billy Pilgrim or Howard Campbell) is ultimately only a stand-in for Vonnegut himself who is really narrating for us as the lead witness and character here--the philosopher who is telling us why and what for.
Eugene Debs Hartke (named after the famous early 20th century Socialist working class leader) describes an odyssey from college professor to prison inmate to prison warden back again to prisoner in another of Vonnegut’s bitter satirical explorations of how and where (and why) the American dream begins to die. Employing his characteristic narrative device--a retrospective diary in which the protagonist retraces his life at its end, a desperate and disconnected series of events here in Hocus Pocus show Vonnegut with his mask off and his rhetorical devices unshielded.
Debs (and Vonnegut) see academia just as imprisoning as the corrupt penal system and they regard politics as the furnishing and marketing of lies. Debs, already disillusioned by circumstance, quickly tracks his way toward resignation and then fury. As warden and prisoner, Debs (and the reader) come to understand that the roles are interchangeable; as a professor jailed for "radical" statements in the classroom reported by a reactionary student, he comes to see the folly of all regulation. The "hocus pocus" of the novel’s title does not describe only the jolting reversals and seemingly motiveless circumstance which attend Debs’ disillusion and suffering, but also describe the political, social, and economic system of a country built upon can’t, and upon the franchising of lies.
t 68, Vonnegut had not only abandoned the sentiment and cracked optimism manifest in Slaughterhouse-Five, he had abandoned any belief in the system or faith for its recovery. This novel is another in a long series of farewells to the farmland funeral rites of childhood.
Cat’s Cradle (1963) is Vonnegut’s most ambitious novel, which put into the language terms like "wampeter", "kerass" and "granfalloon" as well as a structured religion, Boskonism and was submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for a Master’s Degree in anthropology, and in its sprawling compass and almost uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) invention, may be Vonnegut’s best novel.
Written contemporaneously with the Cuban missile crisis and countenancing a version of a world in the grasp of magnified human stupidity, the novel is centered on Felix Hoenikker, a chemical scientist reminiscent of Robert Oppenheimer… except that Oppenheimer was destroyed by his conscience and Hoenikker, delighting in the disastrous chemicals he has invented, has no conscience at all. Hoenikker’s "Ice 9" has the potential to convert all liquid to inert ice and thus destroy human existence; he is exiled to a remote island where Boskonism has enlisted all of its inhabitants and where religion and technology collaborate, with the help of a large cast of characters, to destroy civilization.
Vonnegut’s compassion and despair are expressed here through his grotesque elaboration of character and situation and also through his created religion which like Flannery O’Connor’s "Church Without Christ" (in Wise Blood) acts to serve its adherents by removing them from individual responsibility. Vonnegut had always been taken seriously by science fiction readers and critics (a reception which indeed made him uncomfortable) but it was with Cat’s Cradle that he began to be found and appreciated by a more general audience. His own ambivalence toward science, science fiction, religion and religious comfort comes through in every scene of this novel.
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